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Ethical Issues in the Online World

Welcome to the blog of the Internet Ethics program at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, Santa Clara University. Program Director Irina Raicu will be joined by various guests in discussing the ethical issues that arise continuously on the Internet; we hope to host a robust conversation about them, and we look forward to your comments.

The following postings have been filtered by category The Internet of Things. clear filter
  •  IoT: The Internet of Trees

    Friday, Jul. 17, 2015

    Ethics is about living the good life, and, for many of us, trees are an important part of that good life (and not just because we like breathing).  This becomes clear in an article titled “When You Give a Tree an Email Address,” in which The Atlantic’s Adrienne LaFrance writes about a project undertaken by the city of Melbourne.  As LaFrance explains, “[o]fficials assigned the trees ID numbers and email addresses in 2013 as part of a program designed to make it easier for citizens to report problems like dangerous branches.”  As it turned out, however, quite a few citizens chose, instead, to write messages addressed directly to particular trees.

    Some of the messages quoted by LaFrance are quite moving.  On May 21, 2015, for example, a message to “Golden Elm, Tree ID 1037148” read, “I’m so sorry you’re going to die soon. It makes me sad when trucks damage your low hanging branches. Are you as tired of all this construction work as we are?” Other messages are funny. (All, by definition, are whimsical. How else do you write to a tree?) But the best part, perhaps, is that the trees sometimes write back.  For example, in January 2015, a Willow Leaf Peppermint answered a query about its gender. “Hello,” it began,

    I am not a Mr or a Mrs, as I have what’s called perfect flowers that include both genders in my flower structure, the term for this is Monoicous. [Even trees generate run-ons.] Some trees species have only male or female flowers on individual plants and therefore do have genders, the term for this is Dioecious. Some other trees have male flowers and female flowers on the same tree. It is all very confusing and quite amazing how diverse and complex trees can be. 

    Kind regards,

    Mr and Mrs Willow Leaf Peppermint (same Tree)

    Should we rethink the possibilities of the acronym “IoT”? With the coming of the much-anticipated “Internet of Things,” will trees eventually notify the city officials directly when they’re about to tip over, or a branch has scraped a car, or a good percentage of their fruits are ripe?

    In the meantime, is it pessimistic to worry that hackers might break into the trees’ email accounts and start sending offensive responses, or distribute spam instead of pollen?

    For now, the article made me think of a famous poem by Joyce Kilmer, “Trees,” which was published in 1913. With apologies, here is my take on the Internet of Trees:


    I thought that I would never see

    An email written by a tree.


    A tree whose hungry eyes are keen

    Upon a gadget’s glowing screen;


    A tree that doesn’t choose to Skype

    But lifts her leafy arms to type;


    A tree that may in Summer share

    Selfies with robins in her hair;


    Within whose bosom drafts might end;

    Who intimately lives with “Send.”


    Poems are made by fools like me,

    But emails come, now, from a tree.


    Photo by @Doug88888, used without modification under a Creative Commons license.

  •  The Internet of Things

    Tuesday, May. 28, 2013

    As we wrap up the "Internet Ethics: Views from Silicon Valley" series, we hope that its videos, comments, and related articles will continue to spark conversations about ethical challenges that arise in the online context.  All of the clips in the series will remain available on YouTube, as well as on the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics website

    We leave you with one more issue to consider: The development of "the Internet of Things."  In this brief clip, Owen Tripp, the co-founder of, addresses the balancing act between convenience and privacy in our connected world.  As a recent Wired Magazine article notes, many of us now go about our lives "surrounded by tiny, intelligent devices that capture data about how we live and what we do."  Whether we call it "The Internet of Things," the "Sensor Revolution," or "The Programmable World," we still need to consider the ethical implications of this new reality.